By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
MOSCOW -- On Nov. 15, the Russian Interior Ministry and Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant, announced three new senior appointments. Oleg Safonov was named a deputy head of the ministry. Yevgeny Shkolov became head of its economic security department. And Valery Golubev was appointed a deputy chief executive at Gazprom.
All three men had something important in common beyond the timing of their promotions: backgrounds as KGB officers and experience working directly with President Vladimir Putin when he was a KGB operative himself in Germany or later, when he was a rising presence in the local government of St. Petersburg, his home town.
Russia's intertwined political and business elites are increasingly populated with people like them, former intelligence agents who have personally proved themselves to the president. At the same time, Putin has spearheaded the regrouping and strengthening of the country's security services, which had splintered into a host of agencies after the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991.
In particular, the Federal Security Service, known by its Russian initials FSB, has emerged as one of the country's most powerful and secretive forces, with an increasingly international mission. Putin headed the agency in the 1990s.
"If in the Soviet period and the first post-Soviet period, the KGB and FSB [people] were mainly involved in security issues, now half are still involved in security but the other half are involved in business, political parties, NGOs, regional governments, even culture," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites. "They started to use all political institutions."
Kryshtanovskaya recently analyzed the official biographies of 1,016 leading political figures -- departmental heads of the presidential administration, all members of the government, all deputies of both houses of parliament, the heads of federal units and the heads of regional executive and legislative branches. She found that 26 percent had reported serving in the KGB or its successor agencies.
A more microscopic look at the biographies, she said -- examining unexplained gaps in résumés, unlikely career paths or service in organizations affiliated with the KGB -- suggests the startling figure of 78 percent.
The widening reach of Russia's national security apparatus is part of the general centralization of power under Putin and a more assertive and self-confident foreign policy backed by vast energy resources.
A spokesman for the FSB declined to discuss its functions, saying the topics raised in a series of faxed questions touched on classified material. But in interviews with the Russian news media, senior FSB officials have defended the agency's increasing power as a necessary and natural response to a terrorist threat.
"Western countries condemn Russia for encroaching on democracy but invest in their own special and police services nearly unrestricted powers that encroach on the rights and freedoms of their citizens," Yuri Gorbunov, deputy director of the FSB, said in an interview in July with the official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. "Why? Because they know what a danger terrorism poses."
Russian critics of the FSB's expanding powers contend that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Putin's government essentially entered the slipstream of American policies justifying the extraordinary rendition or targeted killing of terrorism suspects and domestic programs such as warrantless surveillance of citizens.
The critics say that heightened state security, while ostensibly a response to terrorism, is also seen by the Putin establishment as essential to its own political preservation.
"The FSB can take action against any kind of danger that it sees -- not just terrorism but political and economic dangers," said Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.Ru, an Internet publication that monitors the security services. "Now the FSB is more powerful than the KGB was."
The FSB's multiple briefs include intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, economic crime, electronic espionage, border control, social monitoring and, some observers claim, responsibility for the country's computerized election system.
Many outsiders have also asserted that the agency plays a key role in crafting some of the legislation the government submits to parliament on a broad range of subjects, including a measure this year that increased state monitoring of the nongovernmental sector and that gives the state the power to limit or ban foreign funding of political activities it regards as subversive.
The legislation was a reaction to popular revolts in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine, where the Kremlin believed foreign-funded activists played an important part in mobilizing street demonstrations following flawed elections.
The FSB's budget continues to grow rapidly, jumping nearly 40 percent in 2006, according to the newspaper Kommersant. The exact figure remains a state secret, as does the number of FSB personnel.
In 2003, on Putin's order, the FSB absorbed the border guard service and assumed some of the powers of the former Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, or FAPSI, which handles electronic eavesdropping. After a prolonged bureaucratic fight with the FSB, FAPSI was broken up and its functions distributed among various governmental agencies.
"According to persistent reports, the FSB is responsible for running the computerized system that processes and reports elections results," wrote Mikhail Tsypkin, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy. Control of the computerized election system had been a FAPSI function.
Members of parliament said in recent interviews that the FSB will also help determine the fitness of minority investors in industries that the state deems strategic. The FSB has also played a lead role in prosecuting Russian scientists and researchers accused of leaking state secrets to foreign governments, NGOs and companies, a campaign that the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has called "spy mania."
The FSB's pursuit of suspected traitors has chilled the academic community here. In a recent interview, a Russian physicist speaking on condition of anonymity said he had begun to consult the FSB on potential publications and academic symposiums to preclude accusations of divulging classified information.
"There are more and more issues which you cannot decide without the resolution of the FSB," said Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow director of the World Security Institute, a research organization. The agency's powers, he said, extend into signing off on business development in border areas and making decisions on the release of information about reserves of raw materials such as platinum, which was declassified only with the FSB's permission.
The agency's governing legislation states that the FSB also has an intelligence function, but what role it plays abroad and how it works with the official foreign intelligence wing of the government is largely unknown, according to Soldatov, the Agentura editor.
This summer, Russia's security services, including the FSB, were given the legal power to hunt down and kill terrorism suspects overseas if ordered to do so by the president.
"This is a preventive measure," said Anatoly Kulikov, deputy chairman of the security committee in the lower house of parliament, after the passage in July of legislation giving Putin the right to deploy stealth forces against enemies of the state. "This should cool down, at the very least, people who are nurturing their own ideology of force and other such intentions. They must know what they can expect."
Allies of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB officer who was fatally poisoned in London last month, link the passage of this law with the killing. "Litvinenko's death was not unexpected, because according to this law Russian special services can eliminate political opponents on blacklists," Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist and friend of Litvinenko's who was granted asylum in London, said in a phone interview.
The Kremlin has dismissed allegations of state involvement in the killing as absurd and noted that the charges emanate from a circle of people around exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who has long waged a campaign to demonize and undermine Putin.
In July, Russian legislators stressed that the law was designed to target terrorists hiding in failed states and that in other situations the security services would work with foreign intelligence services to pursue their goals.